Settling Accounts by BettyHT

Summary:  The family is surprised by charges brought against Adam.  Ben assumes innocence is their best defense, but their foe has laid an elaborate trap.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  14,108


Chapter 1

Four men rode resolutely across the snow-covered valley as an eagle flew above. It seemed so appropriate to see that eagle as they rode toward Carson City but none of them were focused enough on the significance to catch the connection as they rode through Eagle Valley to the old Eagle Station. Instead each was consumed by his own thoughts and looking at the back of the man in front of him wondering what the other was thinking. A man had accused Adam of murder because he had jerked a man from a horse in a confrontation, and the man had died after Adam threw him to the ground. Each had thoughts they didn’t share with the others.

Ben: “I don’t understand my son’s reluctance to go face his accuser to clear his name of these ridiculous charges. Tarnation, he wanted to head to Denver and then perhaps east on an extended trip. I insisted his behavior in that case would only convince people there was some merit in these fool accusations. I told him that no son of mine would run from the law and leave a stain on the family name. I could only imagine what it would have been like for the rest of us if he had done as he wished. When we’re done with all this foolishness, his reputation will be restored so it’s like the snow here, bright and white under a glistening clear sky.”

Hoss: “I see Pa riding up there, all tall and sure of hisself, but I know Adam’s plenty worried. I kin see how he’s leaning as he rides. Now there’s got to be more to what’s going on that none of us know. Ole Adam likes to keep things pretty close to the vest, but he usually is willing to talk to me except not this time. That tells me that whatever worry he’s got is about someone else in the family. Well I know it ain’t me so it’s got to be Pa or Joe. Adam woulda likely talked to Pa by now ifn it was about him. I’m guessing that this has something to do with Joe. I wish I knew what it was.”

Joe: “At first, I thought my oldest brother was afraid, but now I don’t know what it is or maybe I do. Hoss keeps looking around at me like I know something. I don’t, but that tells me that he thinks that whatever is bothering Adam has something to do with me. I was in Carson City when Adam got into that tussle with the man who died, but I don’t think that’s what killed the man because he was already shot and bleeding. That has to be what killed him. Adam stopped him from getting away. That was all. We’d been looking for him because he stole some horses from us. Why is there all this fuss about a horse thief dying? There’s a lot more to this, and maybe Adam knows what it is.”

Adam: “I should have left last night when I thought of it. I waited, and now I could hang. If they’re in a mood to convict, I have no defense. If I tell them what the man said to me before he died, I’ll take the noose from my neck and put it around Joe’s. I can’t do that. There’s no way out for me now. I don’t understand any of this. It’s as if someone created a perfect storm for us, and we got caught in it. I feel as cold inside as the weather is here. It’s a perfect scene for my mood: bleak and empty.”

*****

Miles away in Carson City, a woman of forty years sat in a chair by the window of her hotel room and waited. Dressed all in black with a black silk veil over her face, no one would know she was still an attractive woman. At least, she would be an attractive woman if the frown would ever leave her countenance for a moment. Whenever the name Cartwright was mentioned, the furrows were accentuated by a sneer. Her goal was to ruin them. More specifically, she wanted Ben Cartwright to lose everything the way she had lost everything. His haughty oldest son was going to die but she wanted him to suffer first. One way or another, she was going to see to that. Her had rejected her once, but she didn’t hold too much of a grudge about that. She had found love with another less arrogant man. Adam had found no one, and often she had rejoiced in that. Now she would get the ultimate revenge on him for his behavior toward her and for his father’s transgression. The precious family reputation was going to be smeared beyond all redemption. The youngest would be torn by guilt and shame because she would be certain that he knew he was responsible for his oldest brother’s fate, and she was sure the middle son would turn to food and alcohol in excess because of the family’s troubles. She knew them well enough to guess the results of her planning.

A knock on the door preceded one of her men entering with news. He was the only one of her hires who had actually seen her. “They were seen leaving the ranch and are on their way. They’re riding right into your trap.”

“I knew they would. Ben Cartwright’s overconfidence was one of the factors I counted on in my plan. Everything else is in place?”

“Yes, we have a man in the prosecutor’s office and in the jail. They know what they have to do, and I’m sure no one knows they’re our men.”

Inside, she bristled a bit at the man’s impertinent use of the possessive as if they were equals in this endeavor, but outwardly showed nothing of her innermost feelings and thoughts. “They’ll want the trial to happen quickly so they can be on their way. I’m sure their lawyer will assure them that the case against Adam is so weak they have nothing to worry about. That means within the week, you will have to get everything moving at short notice and it must all happen quickly to catch them by surprise. We cannot let the jury exonerate him. We need people in there working to emphasize what he did and not let his name and position affect their judgment. It has to work exactly as I have planned. I have the evidence here and it has to be delivered exactly at the right moment to have the maximum effect.”

“We’re ready.” Flynn knew it sounded noble and righteous when she said it, but he knew too that what they were doing was illegal planning to bribe jurors and he suspected she was going to have them do more than that. He wondered if there was a way to get the money in advance.

“Very good. I have the money with me when you need it.”

Knowing what he was thinking, she continued and cut him off from any further comments or questions about her plans. “Don’t even think about trying to take that money and leaving. There’s a gun pointed at your belly at this moment. There will be quite a bit more money once this job is done. You have nothing to gain by trying to cheat me, and you have a lot to lose.”

“I wasn’t gonna do anything. I was only wondering if there was anything else you wanted me to do. You don’t have to get upset with me because I want to do what’s right by you.”

Talking too much was the sign that she had guessed correctly. “There’s nothing more. You can go now.”

Once the door closed, a man stepped from the shadowy corner of the room near the door. “Do you think it was wise to let him know you have a bodyguard?”

“Better he knows that I take precautions than to let him think about trying to rob me. Something will need to be done about him as soon as the job is done. He is aware of too much. At this point, he has no idea how many I have working for me other than him.”

“I’m the only other one working for you.”

“I don’t think I would be safe if he knew that.”

“Is he the only one here who has seen you?”

“Yes. He’s done all the contact work and hiring.”

“Smart.”

“Clay, you should know by now how thorough I am. When this is done, you can console your little brother and take the role of older brother to him with Adam out of the way. The family will welcome you with open arms, and you will have the inheritance you should have always had from your mother.”

“You’ve never been clear on what you will have when this is all done.”

“Justice.”

“You can’t live on justice.”

“I don’t need to live on that. I have my father’s inheritance. I will have plenty of that left even after this. I’ve lost everything else.”

“Your youngest son is still alive.”

“Alive! You can’t call what he is alive. His mind is lost. He sits and stares and does what he is told. He doesn’t know me or anyone else. He is dead even if his body still moves. What they did to him in that prison too everything from him. How could anyone think a fifteen-year-old boy could survive such treatment? I went to visit him and he never responded to me. He lay in that bed like he was already dead. Someone has to pay for that. Someone has to pay the price for putting that boy in prison.”

“The judge thought he was being kind giving him two to five years instead of the gallows.”

“The gallows would have been kinder. All of it is Ben Cartwright’s fault. He turned my boy over to the sheriff. He testified against him. Without him, there would have been no charges, no trial, and no sentence. None of what happened would have happened except for him.”

Wisely Clay refrained from saying anything. He knew better by this point. When he had gotten involved in this scheme, he had not known that she planned on Adam being killed, but as she wasn’t doing it directly and neither was he, he was willing to live with it. No laws were being broken as far as he could tell. If a jury was going to convict Adam for his actions and the court was going to sentence him to death for what he had done, then Clay wasn’t going to feel any guilt about it. As long as Joe suffered no legal threat or punishment, he wasn’t going to step in to do anything. With his beard and nondescript clothing, no one knew Clay was there. No one would know until he wanted them to know. That would be when Joe needed him, and he hoped to step into the vacancy left by the anticipated untimely demise of Adam. This is where her plan and Clay’s hope for the future coincided. She had recruited him for that reason, and he had accepted. He had no moral qualms about the plan as long as the family kept their ranch and Joe wasn’t harmed. He guessed that Joe might be sad at his brother’s demise, and that would be a great opportunity for him. Sure that he could feign sorrow, he would be there to offer his support and a shoulder to cry on cementing his place in his half-brother’s heart and undoubtedly making Joe’s other brother and father quite grateful to Clay. It was ingenious making him grateful to this woman who had recruited him to help her. Unaware of all of her plans, he asked if there was anything more she wanted and there was nothing at that time.

When Clay walked into the adjoining room, the widow in black smiled. She knew what he was thinking and it played into her plans perfectly. Although he didn’t know it yet, he was a key part of her plan too, and she would move him into place when the time was right. She knew he expected to be there to help his half-brother, but she knew he was going to help destroy him emotionally.

Nearly motionless, she stayed by the window until she saw the Cartwrights ride into town. It made her heart race and her temperature rise. She had not seen any of them for over a year, but thought she would be able to handle the situation better than this. Breathing deeply, she willed herself to remain calm and remember what was at stake. It wouldn’t do to lose control at this moment of her victory. With directions to deliver and money to be paid out so the men would follow her instructions, she had to remain alert and authoritative. Clay would take care of the one man who could implicate her, Flynn, and then she would take care of Clay too in such a way that he would never be a threat to her. She had it all worked out in her mind. Nothing was on paper anywhere so there was no physical evidence anywhere against her. One thing she did wish was that she could be in the sheriff’s office to witness the beginning of the humiliation Adam would have to endure and Ben Cartwright facing a situation in which he was powerless. Witnessing it from afar wasn’t satisfying. Imagining it wasn’t good enough, but she had made no contingency plans that allowed her to witness this part of her plan playing out. She would have enjoyed the scene if she had been able to witness it because it did play out much as she imagined it would with Ben furious and Adam quietly accepting his cruel fate as his brothers stood by not understanding how this could happen..

*****

Carson City was the best place for her plan. Ben Cartwright didn’t have nearly the influence with the sheriff as he did in Virginia City. Although he threatened to go to the governor, the sheriff told him bluntly that he was willing to wait for orders from that office.

“The charge the prosecutor’s office set is murder. I have no choice but to hold him here until I get orders to do otherwise.”

“But he surrendered voluntarily. He could have gone anywhere. We have resources that would have allowed him to avoid this entirely. He could be in Denver by now.”

“Then he would have been a fugitive from justice and would have convinced many that he is guilty.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“In many ways, I agree with you, but we need to follow the law. Out here it’s all we have to keep life civilized.”

As they had traveled to the city, Adam had expected this to be the situation in which he would find himself. Steeled to the inevitability of it, he tired of an argument that couldn’t be won. “Pa, give it up. I’ll stay here tonight. Get your judge’s order tomorrow.”

“Adam, I don’t want you sitting in this cell tonight.”

“When you insisted I come to face these charges, sitting in a cell was a given.”

The unspoken condemnation of his behavior stung, and Ben wanted to argue against it but couldn’t. He had set this chain of events into action.

“We’ll have you out of here first thing in the morning.”

As Adam remained silent, Joe was going to object, but Ben put up a hand to stop him.

“We can’t do anything more here. We’ll get rooms and as soon as we can, we’ll get a lawyer working on this.”

“But, Pa.”

“Joseph, Adam is correct. We cannot win the argument with the sheriff. We need to follow the law. Adam will be fine here tonight.”

Hoss wasn’t so sure. “Pa, I’m thinking there’s a reason somebody wants Adam in this jail. I think I’ll stick around to keep watch.”

Looking at the sheriff, Ben wondered what he thought. “That may be a good precaution. We can take turns.”

The sheriff showed his character. “I can’t let you in by the cells with a firearm, but you’re welcome to stay inside here in my office where it’s warm and keep watch. Like you, I think there’s something going on in this situation that I don’t understand. I’m not taking your side, but I want the truth of this to come out whatever it is.”

“Sheriff, that’s all we can ask.”

Quiet during all the discussion, Adam was led to his cell then. He was the one who had to sit helpless in a cell trusting his fate to strangers with motives he didn’t know and characters he couldn’t trust. He didn’t like the loss of control over his life. There wasn’t going to be much sleep for him, but it wasn’t due to the lumpy thin mattress on the jail cot or the snores of the others in adjoining cells. He had worries that wouldn’t give him any peace of mind.

 

Chapter 2

Ben: “Guilt is going to be my companion for the next days. Seeing Adam as he walked back to that cell made me want to cry. I couldn’t. I have to act strong and confident, but I am anything but that now. There’s something very wrong here. Somehow, I feel we’re marionettes and we can’t see who’s pulling the strings. So far, Adam is the one paying the penalty for our blindness and helplessness, but I have a feeling there’s going to more trouble before this all plays out. I regret my overconfidence walking into this thinking that somehow his innocence was all we had to have. My experience should have told me to be more careful.”

Hoss: “I wish Pa would open up and be honest with us. I know he’s holding back what he’s really thinking ’bout all this. Something stinks like a week-old carcass in July. Ain’t none of this should be happening, but it is. Bad as I feel ’bout it, it must be ten times worse at least for Adam. I wanted to bust him outta there, but I know he would never have gone. He respects the law, but I gotta say, this time, it could be a dangerous thing to believe. I know he’s a mite upset with Pa, and I don’t blame him at all. I shoulda spoke up too when Pa said we should jest ride over here and straighten out this mess. We had other ways we coulda handled this instead leading Adam in here like a handing over the lamb to the wolves.”

Joe: “I was thinking Adam was worried too much, but now maybe he wasn’t worried enough. The rest of us certainly weren’t. Pa had all that confidence that we could settle this so easily because Adam is innocent. It’s pretty clear it’s not going to be easy at all. At least the sheriff has the same concerns we do. He’s going to help us, I think, and we’re going to need all the help we can get. The other problem is we’re not at home so who else is going to help us? Whoever planned this knew that too. In Virginia City, we would have allies. Here, we’re more on our own, and that makes us more vulnerable.”

Adam: “This is the third time I’ve sat in a jail cell facing murder charges when I’ve been innocent. It worries me in that a man’s luck has to run out sometime. I have to wonder if this is that time. This whole situation has been odd from the beginning. Why would a man who stole horses with a Ponderosa brand try to sell them in Carson City? It doesn’t make any sense, and after what he said to me, I think this was all an elaborate trap to catch me. But the question is who wanted me so badly to be in this situation. If they wanted me dead, there were simpler ways to accomplish that. This is bigger than someone wanting me dead and has all the earmarks of someone seeking revenge not just on me but on my family. I have no idea who that could be or why they’re doing this. Stealing horses must have some significance to it and maybe having it happen here does too, but what could that be?”

*****

In the morning, Ben stormed from a lawyer’s office fuming with indignation and frustration. Exhausted after not hardly sleeping at all, none of what he had heard there had been even remotely what he had hoped to hear. The advice he had been given was that with a murder charge, it was highly unlikely he could get bail of any kind for his son as long as Adam was healthy and there were no other extenuating circumstances. The lawyer told him to save his effort and his money for the trial. He didn’t know how he could go face Adam and tell him he would stay in that jail cell. Unwilling to give up, he consulted with a second attorney who agreed that bail was unlikely, but gained one bit of advice he was able to accept once he calmed down, and then talked strategy with the man.

“Why don’t you insist on an inquest first? As far as I can determine, there wasn’t one. An inquest could put this whole thing to bed if the finding is that there was no wrongdoing or certainly none that is as serious as murder.”

“But my son would stay in jail and could still face charges?”

“He would have to stay in jail until the inquest most likely. But, pulling a man suspected of stealing horses from a horse as he attempted to flee? Yes, an inquest might return a charge in a case like this but only as a face-saving measure. Your son could get bail then, and we would ask a judge to dismiss the charges. That would likely be successful, and if it wasn’t, a trial would exonerate him.”

“It would take time, and his reputation would be tarnished.”

“No more so than by charges that have been leveled against him in the past.”

Ben had to agree. Adam had been accused of murder twice and been exonerated each time. Once Ben had been there in that same cell. He knew there was no easy way out of this no matter how much he wished there would be one. He retained the services of that lawyer and asked him to go to the jail to meet with Adam as soon as he could. The lawyer accepted. Before Ben left though, the lawyer asked a question he planned to ask Adam later.

“Is there someone you have angered recently who could be seeking revenge?”

Surprised by the question, Ben stopped halfway up out of his chair and sat down again. “Angered? Seeking revenge? What are you implying?”

“Mister Cartwright, I’m relatively new to this city. I pay attention though to what is happening because I may need information in cases. When this incident first happened, it seemed fairly cut and dried. A man stole horses and fled. He was apprehended but died from injuries sustained. Not an unusual case in the west. Then a remarkable development occurred as there was talk about how tragic the man’s death was. I found that amazing that there was sympathy for a horse thief. Next there was a warrant for your son. I couldn’t imagine why. I still can’t. Someone seems to be exerting influence to make this happen. That would indicate someone trying to even the scales by harming you or your son for some other issue unrelated to this man’s death. So, my question: who could want revenge?”

Sitting quietly and contemplating what the man said, Ben tried to think of anyone he had recently angered. He couldn’t think of anyone. “I think perhaps your theory has merit, but I can’t think of anyone.”

“Then perhaps Adam is the direct target. I’ll ask him.”

Although Ben didn’t know of anyone Adam had angered, he also knew his eldest son kept many of his concerns private. It was possible there had been an altercation or dispute of which he was unaware. Ben asked the lawyer when he could get to the jail to consult with his son.

“Adam isn’t going to like any of the news I have to give him. It would be good if you could be there and begin discussing strategy with him. He’s logical by nature. Coming up with a plan would help.”

“I’m hired then?”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I should have made that clear. Yes, whatever your retainer is, we’ll pay it.”

“Let’s get the formalities of that out of the way so there will be no question with the sheriff or the judge. Then I will go with you to the jail.”

*****

It didn’t take long and the two were on the way to the jail. At the hotel, the widow in black saw them and wondered who was with Ben Cartwright. She asked Clay who didn’t know.

“Find out. I want to know everything they’re doing.”

It was difficult for Clay because he didn’t know enough people in town so he had to go to the man they had hired to coordinate the other activities she wanted done. Flynn said he would get in contact with his man at the jail and get back to him. Clay took a seat on a bench and waited. As he sat there, he saw Hoss and Joe come out of the hotel and head to a restaurant. His heart speeded up when Joe looked up the street and briefly stared at him. His gaze was brief though and showed no recognition. Sighing in relief, Clay waited.

*****

In the sheriff’s office, the lawyer got permission to meet with Adam. Ben went with him. Adam looked like a man who hadn’t slept which was close to the truth. Unshaven and unwashed, he looked the part of a man accused of a serious crime and the lawyer was taken aback. Seeing his reaction, Adam had a slight smile but one that didn’t have any humor in it.

“Don’t worry about how I look. I’ll be sure to improve my appearance before I have to go to court. Arguing with my father about coming here, making that trek through the snow and cold, and then spending a night in a cell had a rather negative impact on my attitude.”

Relieved to have such an articulate client, the lawyer sat on the small stool in the cell. “Your father has retained my services. Is that acceptable to you?”

“Depends on what you say next.”

“Fair enough. I’ll tell you what I said to him. I think someone is manipulating the system to have you charged. For some reason, they want you in court. The case doesn’t make sense for any other reason. Now, I’ll ask you what I asked him. Is there someone you have angered recently or someone who has a reason to seek revenge on you?”

Regarding the young lawyer with a frown, Adam had two things to say after a moment of thinking. “First, you’re hired. And, I have no idea of anyone who would want to do this to me.”

Ben angered his son again. “Adam, are you sure? You do have a way of intimidating some and sometimes infuriating others.”

“Pa, maybe you should let me speak with my lawyer.” The rebuke was clear.

“I was only trying to help.”

“You’ve hired the lawyer. Thank you. Now let him do his job.”

The lawyer decided it was time to stop the family squabble. “If you can’t identify anyone recently, can either of you identify anyone with a grudge from the past who might be trying to settle an account with you or with your father?”

“This could be about my father?”

“I think it could be. What better way to get to Ben Cartwright than through his sons? It is an avenue that should be checked.”

Staring at his father, Adam wondered why his father had chosen to keep that obscure even as he remembered the lawyer saying he was going to ask him the same question he had asked his father. Adam decided they should start making a list and suggested the same to the lawyer.

“Yes, that would be a good beginning point. We could discuss each one and then try to see if there might be a connection. Are you willing to pay for an investigator?”

The lawyer explained more about requesting an inquest and what that would mean and the mechanics of the process. They were so there was little more to discuss other than the lawyer explaining that he was going to file the necessary paperwork to request that formal inquest.

“If nothing else, it will delay a trial and give us much more time to investigate and find out more about what is going on here.”

“There is one more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s your name?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is John Joshua Bertram. My family always called me Jay. You can call me Jay.”

“Jay, how long will it take to get an inquest? I’m already quite impatient to get out of here.”

“It should be decided today. It could be as soon as tomorrow but more likely the day after that. They need to get six men to sit for the inquest and to get the information together to present at the inquest.”

“I’ll be in jail until then?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, but that’s likely. I can’t see any way to get you released except you will be required at the inquest. You will be ready to improve your appearance for that, correct?” Jay had a bit of a smile with that question.

Answering the slight smile, Adam decided he liked the young lawyer. “Yes, Jay, I’ll be presentable for that.”

After Jay and his father left, Adam had some time to think. In the past year, there had been only one difficult situation for the family. They had dealt with rustlers. The first incident had been minor horse rustling until they realized how many were being taken even if every raid usually resulted in a loss of two or three. While Adam and his brothers had been away on a cattle drive, their father had caught the rustlers. One was wounded and died of infection a few weeks later. The other was a fifteen-year-old boy who was turned over to the sheriff. The charge was horse stealing so the court was unwilling to completely set aside the punishment. The boy refused to tell the judge where he and his partner were selling the stolen horses even though the horses recovered all had been sold with a forged bill of sale. So he got a sentence of two to five years. It was a lenient sentence for the crime but a significant penalty for one so young. He would likely be about eighteen before he was released. Adam wondered how he was doing in prison. Guessing that the young man had heard his father had committed suicide after losing the ranch due to foreclosure. The father had used the resources he had to defend his son and didn’t have the money to make required loan payments nor to buy needed supplies. With his sour attitude and his failure to pay attention to business, he had lost important contracts too. Adam had heard a few charges hurled by the boy’s father once as he blamed Ben for all that had happened. As sour as things became, the older son left and joined the Army. When the War began to need more soldiers, he was called to duty there. Adam wondered if he had returned and might be seeking revenge. He guessed though that his father might resist the idea that this whole mess was because of what he had done and not anything Adam had done.

*****

At the hotel, the black widow was furious as her plan seemed to be collapsing before she even had a chance to set most of it in motion. Clay had returned with information, and she didn’t like hearing any of it.

“Not only does Adam have a lawyer now, Jay Bertram, but that lawyer is questioning who is putting on pressure to have Adam tried for murder. In fact, he’s going to request an official inquest to determine if there should even be a murder charge. He doesn’t think an inquest will result in a finding of murder so Adam will most likely be allowed to go free. A lesser charge might be set but only to save face. He figures even if there is one a judge will dismiss it or a jury will find him not guilty and quickly.”

“How do we know all this?”

“We’ve got a man working at the jail, and the lawyer didn’t seem to care if anyone was listening so he listened.”

“It’s all true and accurate then?”

“There’s no reason to question it.”

“Damn.”

“What’s wrong? Oh, I know you wanted Adam convicted, but he will still face a lot.”

“The point was to have him convicted and hanged. Isn’t that what you wanted too?”

“Well, not exactly. I got into this because you said you had a way of getting me closer to Joe and that you could get me an inheritance from my mother that I never got. I didn’t know then that you planned to eliminate Adam to do it.”

“Of course, you did. How else could you get what you wanted. Don’t turn cowardly now. It’s impossible now to get him convicted and hanged. The plan to bring in documents to show his fraud once he’s dead won’t work if he isn’t dead. He’ll be able to see those documents and testify about them. They won’t hold up long against that. I need a new plan.” She got a feral look then. “Instead of putting pressure on the jury to convict, I can let jealousy and greed work with a liberal dosing of alcohol and still achieve our purpose.”

“What do you mean?”

“Send that vile man Flynn back in here. I’ll explain to him and you can listen.”

Clay was shocked to hear her plan but impressed too at how quickly she had conceived it. Within a short time, she had handed over a significant amount of money and sent the man on his way with instructions.

“You know I can’t be part of this any longer. I never agreed to break the law which is what you plan to do tonight.”

“I’m sorry about that, Clay, but don’t cross me or pay the consequences.”

“I know. I’m in too deep to say anything to anyone. I’ll be leaving town, I think.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. Let’s toast the future for both of us, and then you can go.”

Although he should have suspected something based on how easily she accepted his rejection of her plan, he took the glass of wine she offered and downed it not noticing anything unusual. It was when he turned to go to his adjoining room that he first realized his balance was off. By the time he got through the door, he could barely walk. She helped him to the bed, and he heard her voice as if she was far away.

“No, Clay, you don’t get to leave. You’re part of my plan. You always were, and I need you to stay so you can make your grand entrance as my assistant. Joseph is going to love that part seeing his half-brother on the arm of the woman who destroyed his family.”

With a satisfied smile now that she had a new plan that could still work, she helped Clay to get under the covers, pulled off his boots, and watched his eyes close knowing he would sleep at least a half-day. By then, Adam would be dead, and she could proceed with the next part of her plan handing over the evidence of his fraud to the newspaper to publish. He wasn’t going to be around to dispute it, and she had some forged affidavits to defend it. By the time anyone dug deep enough to show that there was no basis for the charges, it would be too late. The stain of the story she had planted would never be gone. She was rather proud of what she had managed despite the setbacks.

*****

Chapter 3

Although exhausted, Adam still had trouble falling asleep so he heard the mob coming long before they arrived. He guessed their destination and hoped the deputies would be able to keep them from entering. Hope was short-lived when the one watching the cells opened the back door and got out of the way after handing over the keys to the first men who entered. A few went for the front and disarmed the deputies there while others unlocked his cell and ordered him out. He wasn’t at all willing to cooperate. It didn’t matter as they came for him dragging him from the cell and out of the jail pummeling him to stop his resistance. A couple of the men had clubs and used them. He took a blow to one arm that he was fairly certain broke a bone in his forearm limiting his ability to resist. Another blow to his lower leg made a loud crack and sent agonizing pain up his leg. He couldn’t walk, but it didn’t matter as arms grabbed him and dragged him ignoring his groans. By the time they brought him to a tree and slipped a noose over his head, he hardly knew what was happening. The one thing he did hear was that voice he had heard for well over three decades.

“Stop! We’ll shoot the first man who tries to do anything more to him. Let him go.”

For a moment nothing happened as Adam was held up by several men who had put that noose around his neck. Several others were holding the rope they had planned to use to pull him up. It would have been a horrific way to die. Now instead, they let him go and he fell to the ground with a groan as his leg couldn’t support him. Hoss and Joe rushed to him as Ben and the sheriff continued to hold their weapons on the crowd. Hoss checked over his injured brother.

“Pa, I think his leg is broken and maybe his arm too. He’s pretty busted up.”

“Is he conscious?”

Turning back to his older brother, Hoss called his name several times until Adam groaned and said ‘Hoss’ through swollen lips.

“He knows me.”

“All right. We’re taking him to the doctor. Joe, you help me and the sheriff keep watch. Hoss, can you take Adam?”

“I shur can, Pa, ifn Joe helps me get him up off the ground.”

As it turned out, Hoss’ assessment had been correct. The small bone in Adam’s lower left leg was broken as was a bone in his right forearm. He had numerous other bruises and some were substantial. He had been hit in the face and on the head. The doctor propped him up with pillows to make it easier for him to breathe. When the sheriff came in to see him, he accepted that he was in no condition to return to the jail. He also couldn’t escape so there was no reason to guard him.

*****

In the morning, the judge visited the doctor’s office to see for himself. “Well, it’s clear the man can’t appear at the inquest. The evidence that has been shown to me by the prosecutor is flimsy at best. I’m going to dismiss the charges for the present as Mister Bertram has filed for me to do and wait until the inquest can be held. I don’t want to waste my time on a case that doesn’t seem like it ought to have been brought in the first place. If the inquest can determine more of a case then I will consider reinstituting the charges. Until then, I would like the prosecutor to explain why he brought the charge in the first place. It seems there may have been a misuse of his office and I want to know why. I have plenty to keep me busy and don’t need this type of thing to interfere with my duties.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.”

Ben spoke for all of them as they stood in the office. Then Ben went back to Adam’s side to see if he had awakened. The doctor had given him a sedative so he would sleep after all that had happened to him and the pain he was in. He was so grateful that Hoss and Joe had been in the saloon the night before and found out what was happening in time to alert him and the sheriff. Even so, it had been close.

The sheriff was still looking for the deputy who had opened the back door to let the lynch mob in. There had been men in jail for minor offenses who had been willing to give information for a release. That was how they knew a deputy had unlocked the back door. Based on their help as well as apprehending men in the mob, a number of men were in custody, but none were talking. The sheriff suspected that whomever had orchestrated the lynch mob wasn’t in custody. According to the bartenders in the saloon, men who didn’t seem to have any money suddenly had been buying drinks for others and stirring up the talk against Adam. When it turned to the news that an inquest was going to replace a trial, it got ugly quickly and that was when Joe and Hoss had left the saloon. The men there had not known they were related to Adam. However, they were still frustrated by lack of information.

The Cartwrights were further hampered by concern for Adam who despite the sedative was restless in the bed where he lay. All of them could only imagine the nightmares any of them would have being locked in a cell anticipating being tried for murder, and then being dragged from that cell by a drunken mob. That thin rope burn injury around his neck made them sick to their stomachs even though it was fairly minor because the rope hadn’t been there long. It was the thought of what it implied and how it must have felt to Adam to have that rope there. Injured and powerless to resist, Adam must have felt hopeless and alone. It was a reason to have nightmares, and none of them wanted to leave his side hoping to dispel any remaining fears he might have as soon as he awakened.

*****

Jay arrived early in the morning wondering if Adam had regained consciousness and said anything yet. “We could certainly use some information from him at this point. Someone wants him dead, and we need to know why in order to find out who that is. They were going to let a jury do it, but switched plans as soon as they heard we were pushing for an inquest instead of a trial.”

“He must have really made somebody mad.” Joe had heard the theory from his father that Jay had about angering someone who wanted to settle an account with him.

“Yeah, but who done it? Dadburnit, we ain’t got no idea who it could be.” Hoss had been trying to think of someone who could have murderous intent but had come up with no names at all.

At that point, Adam stirred and seemed to be trying to say something. Ben leaned closer and urged him to remain calm but had no effect as his son continued to be agitated.

“We shouldn’t be having this discussion in here. We’re upsetting him.”

“No.” Although spoken softly, it was clear enough. Adam wanted to communicate. With some effort, he managed to open his eyes and looked around at the men there. The tissue around his eyes was bruised and swollen so that was not an easy task. His lips were also swollen but speaking wasn’t difficult except for that. “Ask the bartender who was buying the drinks. Separate them from the others.”

“That’s a good idea. I’m going to go tell the sheriff that. We’ll get some information quicker that way.” Happy to have something to do that would help, Joe left.

“Adam, we still need a name if you’ve thought of anyone who might be holding a grudge against you.”

“No, not only against me, but more against Pa. The Graham family.”

Ben was shocked that Adam would suggest that. “Adam, Donald Graham is dead. His oldest son is in the Army, and his youngest son is in prison.”

“Pa, let’s not argue with Adam at this point. ‘Grumpy’ Graham did blame you for his boy going to prison and said they’d get even with you.”

“He can’t get even from beyond the grave.” Ben argued with Hoss not wanting to believe Adam could be correct.

Jay got involved at that point. “Adam had time to think about this and thinks it has merit. Now you mentioned two sons. Are there any other relatives who might be able to carry out Mister Graham’s wishes?”

“There’s his wife, but she left town when they lost the ranch and Donald killed himself. They had to have been involved in selling the stolen horses their son took from us, but their son, Daniel, wouldn’t say anything. With that reputation, Donald found it difficult to get any contracts with anyone. He spent his money on his son’s defense instead of making his loan payments too until they were bankrupt. The bank foreclosed on his ranch. She might wish to do something, but whoever is doing this has money. She had none left.”

“Where did she go?” Jay was interested in the only lead they had.

Ben didn’t think she could be involved. “As far as I know, she went back to her family. Once her oldest son left, there was no one here for her. Her family is from Sacramento.”

“So close enough that we could check on her rather easily. I think we should. What is her name?”

Hoss was anxious to help. “Melanie Graham. Or she could be using Missus Donald Graham.”

“Do you know her maiden name?”

Ben supplied that information. “It’s Carson.”

“Thanks, Pa. Anything to beat a murder charge.”

“Oh, Adam, you don’t know. I should have told you that first. The judge has set aside the murder charge. He said he plans to wait to see if the inquest can come up with anything, but he clearly doubts that they will. He doesn’t like that he has been manipulated in this case.”

“Pa, we all have.” Adam turned his attention to Jay. “I have something to tell you now. When I pulled that man from his horse, he told me something that has bothered me since then. He said he bought horses from us and then we claimed they were stolen. He said Joe tried to murder him to shut him up. He thought when Joe shot him it was to shut him up. So, to him, I finished the job by jerking him from that horse. He asked what he had ever done to us to make us want him dead.”

Jay only took a moment before responding. “You didn’t want to say this before because if you did, you implicated yourself in a fraud and pointed the finger at your brother for murder. I understand that. The question now is who stole the horses and forged documents to sell them to this man? Those forgeries are bound to show up sooner or later and make you look guilty of that crime as well as implicating your brother in that man’s death. We need to tell the sheriff about this. Better he knows it in advance as part of the whole than to let him be surprised when those forgeries show up.” Jay frowned then. “You said the Grahams sold stolen horses. They would have experience in forging such documents then, wouldn’t they?”

Ben had to agree with that reasoning, but saw no reason for it any longer. “There would be no point in turning them over to the sheriff now or the prosecutor, would there? I mean, the judge set aside the charge. What would such a document show?”

Jay accepted his logic. “Not much without Adam’s testimony and no one has that.”

Hoss had a question. “So, what could they do with the forgeries?”

Ben had a theory. “Maybe they could put them in the newspaper to smear his reputation?”

Jay had an answer to that idea. “But any good reporter would check with Adam to get his side of the story before printing something so inflammatory. Libel laws can get you in trouble otherwise.”

“Unless they get paid not to check. I think it might be a good idea if one of us visited the newspapers and had a chat with the editors warning them of what might be coming their way.”

Jay had an amendment to Ben’s plan. “If anyone is watching, they’ll see that happening. I’ll have my investigator do it. He seems to pass unnoticed in most situations, and it may be our best chance to intercept the agent of our mastermind.”

“Jay, you’re s natural at this.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright. I did want to work for the Department of Justice in Washington, but the level of corruption in the federal government drove me away. I find practicing law out here to be more to my liking.”

“It is our gain. Thank you.”

“I appreciate you saying that. Now if you wouldn’t mind saying it to a few prominent friends in town, that would help my business prospects out immensely.”

Hoss tapped his father on the arm and pointed to Adam who had fallen asleep. Clearly, the conversation had relieved much of the stress and worry because he was much more restful than he had been earlier. They moved to the outer office to finish their discussion. Jay wondered how Ben and Adam knew so much about the Grahams.

“Adam courted Melanie at one time. It wasn’t for very long. She wasn’t honest with him, and he can’t abide that in a woman. It didn’t seem to take her long to find someone else so I don’t think she loved Adam either.”

With his questions answered, Jay left, and Ben and Hoss returned to the room where Adam slept and took up positions to watch over the injured man and make sure nothing more happened.

*****

By that evening, they had information on who had delivered the forgeries they had been expecting. The least reputable paper in town had gotten them with a sizeable payment of cash to publish them with a story about how Adam Cartwright sold horses and then claimed they were stolen by using forged bills of sale. As soon as he could do so, the editor brought the forgeries and the written story to the sheriff with a description of the man who had delivered them and the cash.

“I can keep the cash?”

“Of course. It was paid to you to commit an illegal act. You haven’t committed that action, but the person who paid you committed crimes. Therefore, you do not have to return the money. Consider it a reward for turning in these papers.”

“Thank you, Sheriff. Any time you need anything, call on us.”

The sheriff met with the Cartwrights, Jay, and Jay’s investigator then. Joe recognized the description of the man who delivered the papers when he heard it.

“I saw him. I thought he looked familiar when I saw him sitting on a bench, but I couldn’t place him. About my height and build, but with a full beard and longer straighter hair. Clothing is more Mexican looking than anything, and he had a slouch hat pulled low.”

The sheriff thought he had seen him around too and coming out of one of the hotels in town.

*****

Jay told his investigator to stake out that hotel. Joe offered to help. They stopped Clay Stafford leaving the hotel about two hours later although Joe didn’t recognize him until he spoke and called him by name.

“I haven’t done anything illegal, Joe. When I tried to leave, she drugged me. She told me I had one more job to do and then I could leave. All I had to do was bring some reports over to a newspaper office. She probably knew by then that you would catch on to me. It’s what she wanted all along: to put us at odds.”

“Who is she?”

“Melanie Graham.”

“Why did you help her?”

“She promised she could get me closer to you and get me the inheritance from my mother that I never got. There was a lot that I didn’t know. What she really wanted was to ruin your family by seeing Adam dead, ruining your family reputation, and hurting you so that your father would suffer. You have to believe me that I didn’t know she would break any laws. I didn’t want to break any laws.”

“You’re wrong about one thing though. You did commit a crime by helping her in her conspiracy. By delivering those papers, you became a member of it. You need to come with us.”

“Joe, don’t make it come to this.”

“Clay, you left me no choice.”

Clay drew as did Joe and the investigator. Shots were fired, and the doctor had another patient except one who was in a lot worse shape than Adam had been.

*****

“Pa, I shot my own brother. He could die.”

“Joe, you gave him every chance to do the right thing. He chose the path he wanted to follow. He always has. The doctor said he thinks he will recover.”

That night, Joe realized that being related by blood meant nothing if there was no connection of the heart. When he had knelt by the crumpled form of his half-brother Clay, he had realized that he wasn’t as sick at heart as he had been when he thought that lynch mob might kill Adam. The loss of Adam would have torn his heart in two. The loss of Clay would have hurt, but it would have hurt about the same as losing a good friend. As the doctor cared for Clay, Joe sat with Adam and told him how he felt. The two brothers loved each other. Adam held Joe’s hand as he talked and assured him they would get through this trouble together.

“Adam, I’m sorry I ever thought about putting Clay ahead of you in my heart. He never deserved that spot. He has used me at every turn. You never have. You watched out for me. He never was my brother. We only had the same mother.”

Too much in pain yet and too weak to continue the conversation, Adam squeezed Joe’s hand before closing his eyes. Joe got that message too and left Adam so he could rest. The family was doing that more and more thinking the worst of the crisis had passed. They had rooms at a hotel and slept better thinking they had unraveled the plot and stopped their adversary from doing her worst. Adam didn’t rest as easy as his family because he feared they were underestimating the resilience and the craftiness of the woman he suspected was behind this whole mess.

*****

Chapter 4

At the hotel, Melanie Graham was furious. She turned on Flynn who had come to her room with information he knew she wouldn’t like. “What do you mean, they know who I am?”

“I heard them talking after Clay was shot. They weren’t that quiet about it. They said to check the hotels in town to find out which one Missus Graham was staying in. That’s you, ain’t it? You’re Melanie Graham?”

Deigning not to answer that, Melanie had more questions. “What else did you find out?”

“The papers Clay brought to the newspaper ain’t gonna be published. The editor took those to the sheriff. They were waiting for them to be brought to one of the newspapers. Somehow, they knew what you were going to do. That’s how they got onto Clay and tracked him down.”

“How do you know his name?”

“Everybody is talking about it. You know, how he’s a bad seed and came back to do more mischief and how Joe wasn’t fooled this time.”

“No trial, no hanging, no humiliation, no confrontation. Nothing is working. They’re all going to be fine.”

“Well, they will be once Adam recovers. Seems he’s still in the doctor’s office cause of all the injuries he’s got.”

Sitting down and thinking, Melanie began to plot. She needed a new plan but needed more information too.

“What about Clay Stafford? How is he?”

“From what I’ve heard, he was hurt pretty bad, but he’s gonna make it too.”

“And what of the men in jail who were apprehended for the attempt to lynch Adam Cartwright?”

“They’re not talking. Most will get out for disorderly conduct. They already got the money to pay the fines. The ones who spent the money on the drinks and stirred up the bunch have agreed to a plan.”

“What’s the plan? I didn’t have a plan for them.”

“I know. I took care of it. They won’t talk, and they’ll claim what happened was because they were so upset their friend was dead. They’ll claim they got the money when they won a few big pots gambling. There’s no way to check that. They’ll say that then they decided to use the money to have an Irish wake for their friend, and it got out of hand when they heard Cartwright might get off free. No jury would convict them of anything especially as Cartwright wasn’t even seriously hurt.”

“But they had a noose around his neck.”

“They’re going to say it was to scare him. They didn’t have him on a horse. It’s going to be hard to prove they actually meant to lynch him.”

“That’s not bad. That could work.” Melanie began to re-evaluate her opinion of the man Clay had enlisted to do her legwork. Although Clay had recommended him highly, she had not thought he was that capable. She was thinking she had been hasty in that conclusion and wondered what other help he might be to her now that the Cartwrights were looking for her. It was as if he could read her mind.

“I’ve got a place. There’s two bedrooms if you want to hide there and keep going with your plan. They’ll never find you there.”

“We’ll be seen leaving here.”

“I have a carriage out back. You can’t take all your things, but take two bags. There’s room for that. Wear a shawl instead of that black veil. It stands out too much. It’ll look like a couple sneaking out after meeting here when they shouldn’t have if you know what I mean.”

She did. Although unused to taking orders, Melanie complied because what he said made sense. Packing quickly, she managed to get all of her things into two large valises. She left the key with an envelope with payment for the room. They headed down the hall and the back stairs even as they heard Joe Cartwright talking as he was coming up the front stairs with the sheriff. When they got to the carriage, and Flynn threw her bags into the back before helping her into the carriage, she had to respond to what he had said and done.

“You’re awfully sure of yourself.”

“I’m trying to prove myself to you; trying to show I’m somebody who can get the job done.”

That was the right answer too. She was no longer sure if he was being truthful or if she was being manipulated, and she didn’t like the feeling. What bothered her even more was that she had no other option than to trust him or at least to cooperate with him.

*****

Up in the room she had recently vacated, Joe and the sheriff were searching to try to find clues to where she might have gone. The desk clerk had found the money and the key immediately. Because she had not checked out but had left, they had a fairly good idea that she knew they were looking for her. They had some suspicions about that, but the sheriff told Joe they would only discuss them when they had some privacy. When they got outside the hotel, the sheriff said they ought to talk about what had happened but in the doctor’s office. Joe wanted to ask why but the sheriff wasn’t talking. He did plenty though once he had the Cartwrights and Jay behind closed doors.

“She had someone in my office helping her. There must be others helping her too. She knew we were looking for her. We’ve got a lot of people locked up, and Clay couldn’t tell her, so, someone else is informing her of what we’re doing.”

“Who do you think it is, Sheriff? My sons and I will be careful, but we don’t know this town. We don’t know who to avoid.”

“I don’t know, but I suspect there’s someone in the prosecutor’s office perhaps even the prosecutor. I’m thinking he took a bribe to bring those charges against Adam. It’s the one theory that makes sense. I’m starting an investigation of him. I hope not, but there could be another one of my deputies who’s involved too. You and your boys as well as me and anyone working with us simply have to be very careful especially about what we say when others can hear.”

“We can meet here for now, I think. The doctor was thinking of releasing Adam, but now with a fever, he can’t go.”

“Too bad he has to share a room with that Stafford.”

“Yes, it’s unfortunate.

“Maybe it won’t be for too long.”

The sheriff had a bit of a smile so they had to ask him to explain.

“I want to spur her into action. What if we put out a story that Adam has taken a turn for the worse and may not survive?”

Ben wasn’t impressed. “What does that do?”

But Joe understood. It was as good as the plotting in one of the novels he liked to read. “No, Pa, it’s perfect. You see, the men locked up are pretty confident right now that about all they’re facing are fines. They’ve been told that Adam was seriously hurt. Even though broken bones can be serious, he got good medical care right away and has been cared for around the clock since then. They figure he’s going to be fine so they’ll be fine.”

“I got it now too.” Hoss was grinning. “If they think he might die, then they end up maybe looking at prison time. They’ll be looking to make a deal, and we get good info.”

Ben got into it then. “I suppose we could say that Clay is recovering well and has agreed to cooperate fully with the prosecutor too as soon as a meeting can be arranged. She’ll have to do something about the men in jail and about Clay. We have to be ready to stop her.”

“That’s a good amendment to my plan, Mister Cartwright. We’re going to force her hand and make her move before she’s ready. To top things off, we’re putting a story in the paper that her youngest son will be released from prison with a clemency parole as soon as a relative is available to take custody of him.”

“Is that true?”

“It is, but it’s unlikely she will be the relative who can get him out. She’s facing too much trouble herself. I was talking briefly to Adam, and he suggested it. I sent a man over to the governor’s office, and they’re agreeable to it.”

Ben was proud that his son could come up with an idea like that even though he had been through so much and was still recovering. He had something that could make it work even better. “Could you ask the governor’s office to request that the War Department grant his brother a hardship release? They don’t need him now like they did a few months ago.”

*****

The next day, as Melanie was reading the planted stories in the paper Flynn had brought to her, a telegram arrived from the War Department for the sheriff. He read it and whistled in disbelief. Then he went to find Ben and his sons. They were apparently out getting lunch so the sheriff sat down to talk with Adam. He handed him the telegram first before initiating any discussion. After Adam read it, he had about the same surprised reaction the sheriff had upon first reading it.

“I guess we know now what set her off. She must think she has lost everything.”

“Yes, her youngest in prison and then news that her other son was killed in the War. She got that news about eight months ago. That would have been about the same time her father died according to the other information we’ve gotten. Based on records at the prison, she came here to visit her youngest and found him in the prison infirmary unresponsive to anyone. I think it all pushed her over the edge.”

“She’s crazy?”

“It’s probably a good bet, and if not, as close to it as anyone can be and still function.”

Across the room, Clay was surprised. “She never mentioned her older son was killed. She did say her inheritance is how she could afford to do what she was doing.”

“You mean trying to murder me?” Adam’s disdain for Clay was clear.

“I didn’t know that was what she intended. What I was told was that you had killed someone and were charged with murder for it, and she was pushing the courts to do something about that. I figured it was up to them to decide what to do.”

“And you would have been happy to see me hang so you could try to insert yourself into my place in the family.”

Unable to deny Adam’s accusation, Clay was quiet for a short time facing the man’s glare. He knew that Adam was in that bed partly at least because of him. The pain that Adam could barely mask when he moved his splinted arm or leg was Clay’s responsibility because he could have stopped Melanie and didn’t. Instead, he had helped her. The red cheeks and sweat soaked brow and hair were because of the fever Adam was fighting still and what kept him confined in bed at the doctor’s office. Although Clay was weak and still had some pain from the gunshot wound to his side and thigh, he had brought those on himself. Adam had done nothing to deserve what had happened to him. Clay said the only thing he could think to say.

“I’m sorry. I was a fool.”

Adam wasn’t in a forgiving mood. “I’m guessing that wasn’t a first time.”

“No, but based on what’s happened, it probably will be the last time for a while.” Clay looked at the sheriff who nodded. “I’m guessing I’m facing a few years for being a part of this. At this point, I want to help though. What can I tell you that could help?”

Unsure whether to believe him, Adam decided to test him. “Tell us where she’s staying and who’s helping her.”

Without hesitation, Clay gave them her room at her hotel and the name of the men helping her, the one doing the main work and the men in the prosecutor’s office, the sheriff’s staff, and at the hotel. The sheriff knew none of them were men who had been arrested. Glancing at Adam, he nodded quickly and left. He had work to do. Adam stayed quiet for a time thinking about what he had to say.

“Joe learns by experience too. I guess he’s had us there to help guide him though. You do know you could never fit in here, don’t you?”

Clay wanted to argue with him, but he knew he couldn’t. What had happened proved to him that Adam was correct. Grudgingly he agreed. “Yes, I know. You and the others would never accept me.”

“No, we would never accept what you’ve become and how you choose to act. Your disdain for the law, your lack of respect for the lives of others, and your selfishness and greed wouldn’t fit at all with how we live our lives. Being a Cartwright and being part of the Ponderosa is a lot more than having the name and owning the property.”

Clay thought about everything that had happened. “I heard about what you told the lawyer. Would you actually have gone to the gallows rather than tell them that the man said Joe tried to murder him?” As he stared at Adam, he knew the answer. “I couldn’t have done that. Why hang for something someone else did?”

“Oh, because he always has to be the noble one.” Melanie walked into the room with her assistant, Flynn. Both were armed. “He always has to do the right thing and likes to tell other people what to do too.”

Although surprised, Adam tried to maintain his composure not wanting to give Melanie the satisfaction she probably wanted in having caught them unaware. “Melanie, that was a long time ago.”

“Does that make it any less painful?” She pulled the blanket from him baring him and pressed her hand on his broken leg until he gasped in pain. “Do you have any more advice for me now?”

Unable to speak, Adam couldn’t do anything except try to hold back any groans that would please her. At least that problem let him ignore the humiliation of being naked in front of her.

Realizing that Adam was resisting her efforts to make him cry out, Melanie increased the pressure on his leg. “Don’t even think to deny me what I want. I’m the one in control now. I’m going to get what I want this time, and you’re the one who’s going to have to do what I say.” With that she leaned into the pressure she was exerting making Adam grimace in pain.

Clay wanted to stop her from torturing Adam. He pulled himself up to a sitting position and swung his legs over the side of the bed. “What advice did he give you that you didn’t like?”

Startled by the interruption, Melanie eased off in hurting Adam. “Oh, you two didn’t get a chance to talk about me? Oh, it was a lot more than talk and advice. You see he was courting me many years ago. Then he turned his back on me when I needed him most. He told me what to do and walked away.”

“But why would he do that?”

Talking to Clay, Melanie had gradually taken her hand from Adam’s leg. That gave him time to recover his ability to speak enough to explain that or at least to tell Melanie to do so.

“Why don’t you tell him, Melanie?”

“You tell him!” Whirling back, she put her hand over his leg threatening to resume the torture.

Hoping to buy time, Adam began to tell the story. He knew the sheriff was looking for Melanie and this man and perhaps might be there soon. Adam had to hope that was true and tried to talk as much as possible to get more time for the sheriff and for his father and brothers to get back to help him. “Melanie was one of the most attractive women in the Comstock. Of course, I noticed. When I got to know her, I found her to be intelligent and fun. We had a good time every time we were together.” She smirked at that. “After about two months or so of calling on her, I asked to court her. Her father agreed. However, only a few weeks later, she proposed that we marry and quickly. I wanted to wait. She said we couldn’t. I asked her why we couldn’t wait, and she said she was with child. She expected the child to arrive within four months. We hadn’t been together long enough for that child to be mine. Yes, if it had been less time, it could have been my child, but it wasn’t. She had taken up with me to get me in exactly that situation. When I broke off the relationship, people might assume the child was mine because of how close we had become. I had been manipulated very well.”

“So, he walked out on me. Despite all that he would have gained, he was too proud to accept a woman proposing to him and giving him exactly what he wanted.”

“I told you that you needed to go to the father of your child and tell him. You did, and you were married.”

“No, you’re wrong. I didn’t. That man was gone. I had to find someone else and I did. I found a man who thought he could love me. In time, he did, and he was wonderful. Not like you. I loved him. Now he’s gone. My son is gone. My father is gone. Our son is all but gone. I have nothing, and it’s all your father’s fault. You and your father still have everything. Well that is about to change.” With a feral grin, Melanie aimed a pistol at Adam’s groin. “Oh, imagine the stories that will be told about you being found like this shot by a woman who put a bullet there as you lay helpless in bed and then bleeding to death from your wound. How appropriate.”

There was nothing Adam could do to stop her except to try to talk to her and get her to change her mind. He doubted his ability to do that, but he tried. “Melanie, you can still walk away from this. Your son is being released from prison. You are all he has left.”

“I don’t believe you. It’s a trick. Anyway, he has lost his mind. He would need to be put in a home for the feeble minded.”

“You can help him get his health back. He’s still young. You saw him when he was hurt just after he had suffered an attack. It’s possible that he is much better already.”

“No! You won’t change my mind.” She steadied the pistol to be accurate in her aim.

Before Melanie could pull the trigger, Clay launched himself at her to knock her arm away, but Flynn fired at Clay to stop him from interfering. Instead of shooting Clay, Flynn’s shot hit Melanie even as she and Clay fought for her pistol which discharged into Clay’s face. Flynn turned to flee and ran directly into the sheriff and his deputies followed by the Cartwrights. He raised his weapon to fire and never got off a shot before being hit by several shots and dropped to the ground. All the horrific violence had taken less than thirty seconds. Ben and his sons rushed into the room terrified at what they would find. Shocked at the bloody scene, they were relieved to see Adam awake and apparently not suffering any additional injuries. Joe knelt by Clay’s body ad looked up at Adam who nodded. It was over.

Ben pulled a blanket up and over Adam who was shaking a bit not only from being chilled but the torture and what he had witnessed too helpless to do anything about it even though he was central to the events.

“Are you hurt, son?”

“I’m fine.”

The doctor was brave enough to enter then. “He still has a slight fever, but if you think it safe, perhaps you could take him to the hotel. You could all probably get a good night’s sleep there now.”

So, as the sheriff questioned Adam about what had happened, Hoss helped him dress supporting him physically as well as emotionally by being there as he often was. Ben walked outside with Joe who was quiet trying to adjust to the loss of his half-brother and the danger his oldest brother had been in because of that half-brother. That night the family was together, but there wasn’t much conversation as Adam was physically exhausted and Joe was emotionally spent.

*****

Epilogue

Two days later, Adam struggled to get out of the carriage with Hoss’ help. Then with a crutch under one arm and a splint on one leg and on one arm, he hobbled a short distance to a grave site. Standing there, he leaned on Hoss and his father to stay upright. He wanted to offer his support to Joe but couldn’t reach him. Sensing the issue, Hoss grabbed Adam’s belt from behind and helped him move forward two steps so he could rest a hand on Joe’s shoulder as he buried his half-brother.

“Joe, he was a true brother at the end. He saved my life. I think for a moment there, he knew what it was like to be a Cartwright.”

“I wish I had known him even for that moment then he showed some of that.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Then you know what happened as well as I do. He showed courage and a sense of what was important when it mattered most. I’m sorry you lost him just when we might have found him.”

“I’m sorry too, but I’m glad I still have you, and I’ll always be grateful he saved your life. I don’t think I could have ever forgiven him if you had been killed because he helped her do all those things.”

“She tricked him. It was never his fault because he didn’t know what she was doing.”

“He didn’t care either. He only cared about what he wanted, that is, until the end. He finally found out what it was like to be part of a family.”

Ben offered the final words. “I’m sorry for the harsh things we’ve said about him, but Clay deserved them as much as he deserves our gratitude for saving Adam there at the end.”

The family said their goodbyes to Clay then at the lake where he would rest forever beside his mother. Their thoughts though were mostly private.

Joe: “I used to dream about all these adventures that Clay and I could have. We could have taken a trip to New Orleans and seen all the places that were important to our mother. It was only that though. It was a dream. Clay never meant to give any of his time or effort to me. He only wanted to use me to get what he wanted. I mourn here more the loss of my innocent youth more than I mourn my half-brother. It was about time I told my true brothers how much they mean to me and how sorry I was about ever putting Clay ahead of them. That was foolish, and I will never do anything like that again. Family is who matters most.”

Ben: “I know I can say all these things to Joe about Clay, but I wonder how he really feels. He had such high hopes for Clay in his life and finding out from him more about Marie and about New Orleans. He has an emotional tie to that city that defies all logic. I guess I should take more time to talk to him about his mother and the city where we met. It isn’t the grand place Joe imagines it is. I need to tell him about his mother too and not the fantasy he has of her. It should help him to know her as I knew her, a vivacious spirited woman who loved life and would do anything for her family. But she had quite a temper and was quite stubborn. Tarnation, she could react emotionally and impulsively when I least expected it. Joe is like her in many ways.”

Hoss: “I’m so glad this is over. I felt so helpless not being able to help my family against this especially not even knowing who was doing it. Ifn I’d known it was Clay, I woulda broken him in half with my bare hands. I can’t believe he thought he could help that woman get rid of Adam so he could take my brother’s place. Ain’t no way anybody could take his place. Now Clay’s the one who’s gone, and I for one ain’t gonna miss him. I’m sorry for Joe, but that’s about it.”

Adam: “I’m sorry for the pain that Joe feels at the loss of Clay, but I can’t say I’ll miss Clay. I have no sadness at his death even though I regret that he died. He saved my life. I owe him for that, but Joe has some characteristics that could get him into trouble. Clay had a tendency to bring those out in Joe, and sooner or later, I’m afraid Clay would have gotten Joe into serious trouble. I feel more a sense of relief knowing that Clay is not going to be a threat because that’s how I thought of him. He was a threat to our family. Now he isn’t.”

*****

A day later, Adam needed his brothers again to hobble to where Ben stood with a young man as his mother was buried. They were the only ones in attendance except for the minister Ben had asked to officiate. When the minister finished the Bible readings, he left. Ben turned to the young man.

“Daniel, I’m sorry for all that happened.”

“None of it was your fault, sir. My mother was the one who came up with that horse stealing plan. It’s her fault I went to prison. The judge told me that if I said who was in charge, you know, told me what to do and forged those bills of sale, he would be lenient and probably release me to my father’s custody. I couldn’t tell. There was no way to tell him that it was my mother.”

“I had no idea.”

“I know. She wanted to get revenge on Adam and thought stealing all those horses was a good start. She said they would never send a boy like me to prison. When she came to see me in the prison infirmary, I didn’t talk because I was hurt, but also, I was mad. Everything that happened was her fault, and she wasn’t helping me.”

“What will you do now?”

“I’ve got what’s left of grandfather’s inheritance. I plan to buy some land in California and start up a little horse ranch. I know that’s kind of strange after all that’s happened, but I like horses.”

“We would like to help if we can. We work with other horse ranches all the time. Let us know if you want to work with us.”

“Thank you. That’s very generous of you after all that’s happened.”

“I’d like to put all of that in the past if we could and look to the future. There’s nothing to be gained dwelling on the past.”

“I guess I know that. Look what happened to my family because my mother did that.”

After Daniel left, Hoss helped Adam back into the carriage before climbing in beside him. Joe swung up onto Cochise, and Ben rode Buck. As they turned to go home, Hoss loudly asked Adam one question.

“You got any other crazy women you courted we ought to know about? You know, in case they show up to settle accounts with you too.”

Hoss got ‘the look’ and they all got a good cleansing laugh riding home together.

THE END

4 thoughts on “Settling Accounts by BettyHT

  1. Such an amazing story, you seemed to have gotten into the head of the female character and brought all her evil trails to life. Poor Adam suffers so much.
    Great job BettyHT

    Like

    1. Thank you so much. All the twists and turns took some work to keep from being too tangled, but I’m glad you liked the result.

      Like

    1. Thank you so much. This was a complicated one to write so I appreciate so much that you liked it and were willing to let me know.

      Like

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